Monday, November 14, 2016

Breaking Silence

I have never before said anything political here. Not because I don’t care—I do, very much—but because I prefer to tackle difficult topics either face-to-face, with all the nuance of expression and tone to aid the conversation, or else in indirect fashion through my fiction.

That's why in the weeks leading up to the US presidential election, I said little online, and in fact began avoiding the internet entirely. I did not need to see more of Trump’s narcissism, willful ignorance, and eagerness to fan the flames of hatred and intolerance. I was already horrified by him. And it seemed to me that anyone still determined to vote for him despite his actions was not going to change their mind, no matter what I or anyone else might say. (This was reinforced by futile arguments I had with some people I know that support him.)  I focused on the one thing I could do that had the best hope of helping: I voted for Clinton, even though I don’t agree with all her policies, because she had the best chance of defeating him.

But here’s the thing. I’m an optimist at heart. I knew some people would vote for Trump. I thought many more would not. I never imagined so many of those would stay home and not vote at all.

Yet here we are. Never in my life have I been so dismayed by the results of an election. As a parent trying to teach my son to be honorable and trustworthy and fair and compassionate, I hate that he’ll see you can be none of those things—you can lie and cheat and bluster and treat women like disposable toys and minorities like trash and not even try to hide your bigotry, but brag about it—and yet still be rewarded with the highest office in the land. My heart aches for those who now fear for their lives and their families, for those already suffering harassment, for those who may lose desperately needed health care, for everyone terrified we’ve started a long, dark slide into a terrible future.

And yeah, the future is looking pretty bleak, in all sorts of ways. As someone who loves wilderness and has done a lot of work relating to atmospheric and oceanic science, I couldn’t help but weep thinking of the long-term damage that will be done during this presidency. The reefs are dying, the glaciers melting, ecosystems failing, droughts and storms fast growing more devastating in impact, and yet Trump is blithely appointing men who will ignore every last warning sign in favor of short-term corporate profits. The cultural damage to our nation, we can perhaps reverse. The damage to the biosphere on which we all depend…even I, the ultimate optimist, find it hard to see a happy ending there.

But despair does no good. So I will do what I can:
  • Donate money to organizations fighting to protect civil rights and preserve ecosystems and assist people in need.
  • Intervene when I see someone harassed; I won’t freeze or look away, but protest and/or offer my help to the victim. (Here's an example of how to do this.)
  • Speak out when friends or family say something bigoted, to let them know that isn’t okay in my eyes, even if it was “just a joke”. (This link has some good advice on how to handle this.)
  • Write my representatives and participate in grass-roots efforts.
  • Search out my own blind spots and failings, so I can take more care with my own words and actions—particularly as an author. I do believe stories have power. I don’t want mine to inadvertently hurt readers, or to reinforce stereotypes. I want to strive to give people hope, because we’ll need that in days to come.

All of this feels so small: hardly a flicker of an ember against the darkness. And yet I have to believe even so small a glimmer matters. Beyond that, I have no more words.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Thursday Adventure: Uncompahgre Peak At Last (or, A Tale of Two 14ers)

One of the rewards I offered in my Labyrinth of Flame kickstarter was a peak climb--and one of the folks taking me up on that was a friend whom I first met when we were both undergrads at Caltech. Catherine and I bonded over our shared love of SFF books and TV shows, and she was such a good friend that when I finally got a car in my senior year, she let me drag her along on various wilderness adventures. In those days my enthusiasm far exceeded my knowledge, which often led to rather traumatic experiences for my hiking partners.

Like the time I decided to do my first 14K peak: White Mountain, the third-highest peak in California at 14,252 feet, and the highest in the Inyo-White Mountains, which face the mighty Sierra Nevada across the sagebrush desert of the Owens Valley. (In other words, they're the Bolthole Mountains in the setting of the Shattered Sigil books.) Now, White Mountain is about as easy as 14K peaks get--far, far easier than any of the Sierra's jagged 14ers. The trailhead is way up at 12,000 feet, and all you do is hike an old 4WD road to the summit. No problem, right?

14,252-ft White Mountain, taken near the start of the 4WD trail. (No cars allowed on the trail; it's there because an old research station sits at the summit of the peak.)
No problem except for that little issue of altitude. Bright-eyed, naive 19-year-old me was vaguely aware that altitude could be a problem for hikers. So, I reasoned, the best bet would be to camp as high as we could the night before, to give us time to get accustomed to the thin air before we started hiking the next day. We drove straight from sea level to the 12,000-foot trailhead and camped nearby.

Any experienced hikers reading this are cringing. The correct way to acclimatize to altitude is by sleeping low and doing a series of gradually higher hikes. For most unacclimatized people, attempting to sleep at 12K feet is a recipe for disaster.

And so it proved. The next day, one friend, Jason, had such bad nausea and headache he wisely didn't even attempt to hike the peak. Catherine and another friend (whose nickname was "Dangermouse", or Danger for short) felt pretty miserable but gamely decided to give it a go. I, meanwhile, was ready to perkily skip my way up the peak--I didn't know this at the time, but I'm one of the genetically lucky few who feel no negative effects at altitudes up to 14K. In fact, I felt GREAT. (Hypoxia for the win!)

The White Mountain hiking crew: me, Danger, Catherine. Picture actually taken by Jason a day later when the four of us were about to backpack into Cottonwood Basin. Nobody wanted me to take their picture at the start of the actual White Mountain hike because they all felt grumpy and awful after their sleepless night at 12K feet.
So we hiked, and Catherine and Danger felt progressively more miserable, while idiot me brightly encouraged them to keep going. Danger finally hit the wall about a mile short of the peak and stopped, saying she'd wait for us. Catherine was the only one to make it to the top with me, and she was not having a good time. When I brightly suggested that perhaps the stunning views made the misery worth it, she looked across the Owens Valley at the massive, snowcapped wall of the eastern Sierra, and announced grimly, "I could have seen this out of a plane." (Looking back, it's proof of how good a friend she is that she said that instead of punching me.)

View of Owens Valley and the high Sierra from summit of White Mtn. 
Catherine on the summit. Because she's just that tough, she did summon up a smile.
As we went downhill, so did my friends' health. By the time we rejoined Danger, she was so altitude sick & exhausted she was irrational ("I don't want to move. Why don't we just spend the night here?" Me & Catherine: "Um, we don't have any more food or warm clothes and it's well below freezing at night. We will DIE OF HYPOTHERMIA.") It wasn't until Catherine and I started seriously discussing the best way we could carry Danger off the peak that she finally, reluctantly, started stumbling downward. We didn't make it back until after dark. Thankfully nobody got seriously hurt--although Catherine ended up needing physical therapy for her knees, which she strained on the descent--but it was far from my finest moment as a trip leader. (Danger said the next day, "I think I prefer nature walks.")

I've learned a hell of a lot in the 22 years since then, for which my friends are devoutly thankful. Catherine, too, is a far more experienced hiker, although she had never again attempted a 14K peak. Until now! Last year when she signed up for my peak climb reward, we discussed options, and settled on 14,308-ft Uncompahgre, the tallest peak in the San Juan range in southwestern Colorado. Uncompahgre isn't killer steep and has a good trail for most of the way, barring one short section of class 2+ scrambling up some loose rock. If you have a 4WD (a true 4WD, not a Subaru), you can muscle up a narrow, rocky road to reach the Nellie Creek trailhead, from which the peak's summit is a mere 3.75 miles and 3,000 feet. Catherine and I originally planned to do Uncompahgre together last fall, but the timing didn't work out, so we decided to wait for this fall instead.

This past Thursday, we climbed the peak at last, and it was an absolutely spectacular hike. Gorgeous weather--not a single cloud in the sky, which is quite rare in Colorado!--plus a hint of fall colors visible in aspens and tundra, and we saw hardly anyone else on the trail (an even greater rarity on a 14er). Best of all, Catherine felt a million times better than she did on White Mountain all those years ago, thanks to training and acclimatization. No such thing as a bad day in the mountains for me, but the best days of all are spent enjoying beautiful views with good friends, and this hike was one of my favorites of this year. Just check out these pics:

Our campspot the night before the hike. 

Evening light on a ridge above our campsite

Catherine at the trailhead. Since thunderstorm danger isn't that bad in September, we were able to start at the more reasonable hour of 7am instead of the more typical pre-dawn wake-up

Our destination awaits: Uncompahgre's massive summit block
The trail starts off nice and gentle
We strolled through a broad basin
Catherine heading for the ridge (at lefthand side in pic). Just look at that sky!
Gold and scarlet colors in the tundra as we pass a side peak 
The views started to open out as we gained the ridge
Ridgewalking ever higher
Terrific views of surrounding peaks: Wetterhorn and Matterhorn at left, Coxcomb on right
Snack break before we tackle the climb through the summit cliffs
Nothing like scrabbling up a pile of loose rocks (the route goes straight up here, no trail)
Catherine ascends (in shadow) while another climber eases down (the trick is not to knock rocks down onto anyone else). We only saw a few other groups on the trail, which made for a nice change from most of my other 14er jaunts. We did still cover the spectrum of Colorado hiking stereotypes, though, as we saw: 1) young couple with their golden lab, 2) solo young stud striding along in sneakers and carrying rope, having just ascended a far more sporty route than ours, 3) trio of nimble senior citizens that kicked our asses in hiking speed, 4) solo badass woman with her pack-wearing dog
Getting a little easier again
Now we're home free! Summit just ahead.
Catherine on the summit of her first 14K peak since White Mountain. 
Me having a truly excellent day
Peering over the edge of the summit cliffs: holy hell, that's a long way down
Looking west, toward Wetterhorn (foreground) and Sneffels (distant high point in background)
With the sky so clear, we could see forever across the San Juans
Looking down below the peak. 

We spent about an hour on the summit, and had the gorgeous views all to ourselves

The hard part is always going back down
The views make up for it, though
A secret waterfall
Tundra colors
Swiss cheese boulder
Almost back to the trailhead

Why climb mountains? As a famous mountaineer once said, because it feels so good when you stop.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Under-read book recs, a fantasy sampler, and other assorted news

Upon returning from Worldcon I got about halfway through writing a post detailing all the fun I had and cool people I met, plus my thoughts on some of the less good things that happened at the con (such as the infamous short story panel trainwreck). Sadly, my task load is such right now that I fear that post will never be finished, since I'd far rather spend my scant moments of writing time on actual fiction.

Ah well! Suffice it to say I had an excellent time overall, and I was delighted to see N.K. Jemisin's Fifth Season win a Hugo, because I thought it was a damn good book. Oh yes, and at my reading I did not get to eat all those tasty cupcakes myself, since a good 20+ people showed up. (I let them vote on which story they'd rather hear. Lizaveta won over Cara--it seems people like blood mages.)

But as I've said, my time is short, so here's a quick round-up of news that I've been meaning to post:

1) I'm writing a four-part series on under-read SFF books for a new feature on the Lady Business blog they're calling "Readers of the Lost Arc" (how cute is their title?). I'm doing one post per decade, for the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. My 1980s post is now up and ready for your reading pleasure. I just turned in the 1990s one, so that one should be up sometime in the next few weeks.

2) On r/Fantasy somebody was asking what books we'd suggest as a beginner's guide to the fantasy genre. Here's a fantasy sampler list I put together to show off the range of the genre, just in case the Readers of the Lost Arc posts aren't offering enough book recommendations.

3) In other r/Fantasy news, they're about to start a group read of Sherwood Smith's excellent epic fantasy Inda. I highly recommend the Inda series, and the group read looks to be extremely well organized and should be a lot of fun, so if you enjoy epic fantasy, consider joining in! Oh yes, and for extra group read fun, in September the Goodreads r/Fantasy group will be reading the equally terrific standalone sword-and-sorcery novel To Ride Hell's Chasm by Janny Wurts.

4) If you're a Colorado local, I'll be attending the RMFW Colorado Gold writers conference Sep 9-11, and participating in their group author signing at the Renaissance hotel on the evening of Friday the 9th. (I love this conference. I always come back newly energized and ready to work hard on whatever I'm writing.)

5) I will NOT be attending World Fantasy this year as I'd originally planned. Partially because I'm traveling a lot already this fall, and partially because I'm a bit frustrated with the con's inability to join the 21st century (in terms of ensuring disability access and protection against harassment, as well as the focus of their programming). I've donated my membership to a newer Colorado writer who can hopefully benefit from the networking opportunities, since WFC is terrific for that. While I personally have always had a wonderful time at WFC, I figure I can have just as much fun at a different con that's more responsive to member concerns. (Right now I'm thinking of giving ConFusion a go.)

6) Shattered Sigil short story update: progress continues on the Cara novella, albeit slowly due to family and day job needs. The Lizaveta story is headed off to the anthology editor this week, and the three other stories I promised you awesome Labyrinth of Flame kickstarter backers wait in the wings.

That's it for now! For those of you in the US, hope the upcoming holiday weekend is a good one. We're supposed to fly to Orlando on Thursday...right when a tropical storm is forecast to cross over Florida. That seems to be a metaphor for my entire week right now. All I can do is take things one day at a time.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

MidAmeriCon II (WorldCon) schedule

Oh yikes, where did July go? At least I'm no longer jetlagged! Just very, very busy, as per usual. My husband's about to start a new job, which we're quite excited about, but times of transition are always a bit stressful. Plus my day job is asking for more of my time, which makes it extra hard to fit everything in. Nevertheless, I have been writing! I completed a first draft of the Lizaveta short story for the Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology (which is fully funded, woo hoo!), and I'm still working on revising my draft of The White Serpent (the Cara novella I promised Kickstarter backers. The other stories I promised are also all plotted out. Just need the time to sit down and write them.)

Anyway, I'm very much looking forward to a little relaxation and socialization in the form of Worldcon, a.k.a. MidAmeriCon II, which is happening in Kansas City, MO on Aug 17-21. I've got a full slate of panels plus a reading and signing this year, woo! Here's my schedule:

Thursday, Aug 18

10:30am Reading, Kansas City Convention Center room 2203: there will be cupcakes! That way if nobody shows up, I can eat them all. (It doesn't seem to matter how many non-empty readings I've done, my instant reaction upon seeing I'm scheduled for one at a con is OH GOD WHAT IF NOBODY COMES. I find cupcakes help soothe the authorial fear. Plus I like to reward my readers.) Assuming it's not just me devouring cupcakes, I'll read from the brand-new Shattered Sigil short stories and maybe give away a signed book or two.

Friday Aug 19

5pm: Dwarf Planets and Beyond the Kuiper Belt, room 2503B, with G. David Nordley, Jennifer Brozek, and Mark L. Olson. This is where my day job in the space industry comes in handy! I'm the moderator for this one, so I'm looking forward to leading an in-depth discussion on recent discoveries from the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, and more.

7pm: Hard Fantasy--Does it Exist?, room 2209, with Preston Grassmann, Sebastien de Castell, Laurel Anne Hill, Michael Swanwick. My one fantasy-related panel! "Hard fantasy" can be interpreted in so many ways I think it'll be an interesting discussion. ("Hard" magic systems vs. mythic magic? Science fiction in fantasy guise like Kirstein's The Steerswoman?)

Saturday Aug 20

12pm Autographing in the convention center autographing space. Unlike readings, I never stress over these. When people show, great! Otherwise I have a perfectly good time chatting with the other authors at the table if they don't have a reader line, or just relaxing and watching the con flow by. (Seriously, never underestimate the awesomeness of a quiet moment to relax at a busy con.)

Sunday Aug 21

10am: Two Suns in the Sky, room 2503A, with Joe Haldeman and Eva L. Elasigue. Exoplanets and binary star systems! I'm so ready for this one, since I work for the company that built the Kepler spacecraft and photometer, and continues to help JPL run the mission. (I've never worked on Kepler myself, but my friend and hiking partner Dustin Putnam is the controls engineer, and he's generously let me borrow and peruse the presentations he gives on Kepler and its many discoveries.)

11am: Is Mining the Asteroids Feasible, room 2204, with Les Johnson, Dr. Jordin Klare, Jennifer Brozek, and Karl Schroeder. Should be another interesting discussion!

As always, if you're at the con, don't hesitate to come say hi. The best part about cons is the people, and I love meeting new friends. See you in Kansas City!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Australia adventure: sailing the Whitsunday Islands on the Solway Lass

I am back from Australia! Yet still horribly jetlagged, even days after our 30-hour marathon of traveling. (30 hours on planes and in airports and yet it was always Wednesday. Eternally Wednesday.) I always forget how much worse jetlag is when traveling from Australia to the US, as opposed to the other direction. When we go TO Australia, I just feel tired for a day or two and then I'm fine. Coming this direction, I wake up in the middle of the night and no matter how tired I am, I can't get back to sleep until hours later. My seven year old has even worse of a time! Only way I've found to combat the problem is to try for plenty of fresh air and exercise during the day, but that's a tough prescription for an exhausted adult, let alone a cranky kiddo who's ready for a meltdown at the drop of a hat.

Our month spent down under was so worth our current pain, though. As proof, I plan on doing some posts sharing pics from our various adventures--starting with the biggest & best, our multi-day sailing adventure in the Whitsunday Islands.

I've been to northeastern Australia before: my husband and I spent our honeymoon on Bedarra Island, near the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef. Yet I'd never been to the Whitsundays, which are a collection of 74 islands and islets off the Queensland coast near the backpacker's town of Airlie Beach. The southern Great Barrier Reef is many miles further offshore (105km from the mainland), but the various Whitsunday islands have plenty of fringing coral and marine life, making for some very nice snorkeling.

I'd heard the area was best seen by sailing, and given how much our son had enjoyed an afternoon cruise on a tallship in Sydney Harbor on a previous Australia trip, we decided to sign on for a multi-day live-aboard trip on another "pirate ship." We chose to sign on with the 2-masted square-rigger Solway Lass, which has a really interesting history, having been captured as a prize of war and sunk twice since she was built in 1902. (Don't worry, the sailing company totally refurbished the boat since the last sinking.)

The trip was absolutely wonderful, despite some less-than-wonderful weather. June is winter in Australia, and is supposed to be the dry season in the tropical regions. We found the dry season to be, well...not so dry. We had an entire week of high winds and rain squalls; but in between the squalls, thankfully we did get some lovely intervals of sun! Check out these pics:

An omen of things to come: a rainbow over Airlie Beach on the day we began our sailing adventure
The passengers: Solway Lass can carry 30+ guests, but we had 21, plus 6 crew. The passengers comprised a whole mix of nationalities: Spanish, German, Canadian, Indonesian, Chinese, American, Australian, and more.

When the sun is out, the water is an incredible shade of blue

The kiddo and I hanging out in our favorite spot at the bow. Strong winds made for an exciting rollercoaster ride when crossing the open sea between islands. A few passengers got badly seasick, but we lucked out and had no issues. Except for the occasional drenching with spray when the bow plunged into a particularly huge wave, wooo! The islands had plenty of sheltered anchorages so we didn't have to worry about wave action at night.

The crew were very kind to our son, who was the only child on the trip. Here, Dan the bosun (on right) has dressed him up as Captain Jack Sparrow, while bartender Steve watches from his stool. (Yes, the ship has a bar. Plus we were fed very well, thanks to Tim the chef, who was great about making meals for our gluten-free kiddo.) 
We snorkeled in sheltered bays and off little islets like this one. I'd heard the Whitsunday reefs aren't as good as the outer reefs, but honestly I thought the snorkeling was incredible at some of the locations, with tons of gorgeous corals and fish. I don't have any pics of those because we didn't bring an underwater camera. In winter, the air temps are still nicely warm but the water is quite chilly. I brought an old 3mm diving wetsuit and was fine, but our son didn't have a wetsuit. On the boat they provided "stinger suits", which are lycra suits meant to protect against irukandji jellyfish stings, but they're too thin for any real insulation/warmth. The poor kiddo could only stay in the water for a few minutes before he was shivering too hard to snorkel. If we go again, I'm bringing wetsuits for all of us!

We got to do a little hiking as well as snorkeling--here we've been dropped off at a beach to do a walk up to an overlook of famously beautiful Whitehaven Beach.

View of Hill Inlet and Whitehaven Beach. Most of the island beaches have "sand" that's really chunks of broken coral--not so nice to walk on barefoot!--but Whitehaven has soft, powdery silica sand thanks to a quartz-laden ancient volcano caldera out in the bay.

The colors of the water were amazing

Father and son bonding time on Whitehaven Beach

Sand, sky, and waves: a perfect morning

In the shallows left at low tide, you might find rays and little lemon sharks

Our son loved helping with the sails

Sail ho!
The pirate flag flying proud

The ship had a Tarzan-style rope swing that provided much entertainment for all, especially our son.

The drop to the water is enough to fit in a back flip or two...though none of us but the crew managed that without bellyflopping


My turn on the swing

Hanging out in the bow net. You aren't allowed to climb in the nets while the ship is moving, but while anchored, they are fair game

Robert enjoying the view from the sun deck

Whitsunday sunset

The rope swing wasn't the only excitement at anchor. More fun was had by jumping off the bowsprit (which is a loooooong way above the water!). Even the captain came out to watch our kiddo take the leap.

Map of the Whitsundays in the ship saloon with our route and anchorages marked. Blue Pearl Bay and the Maureen Cove area had some of the best snorkeling. 

Our son the pirate captain. He can't wait to go sailing again. Neither can we, actually...we're signing up for sailing classes on our local reservoir to learn the basics. Maybe one day we'll rent & sail a ship ourselves to explore more of the Whitsundays! Although we'd also be very happy to go on the Solway Lass again.

We took the sting out of saying goodbye to our sailing adventure by splurging for a night afterward at the Coral Sea Resort in Airlie Beach. Our room had a terrific view and a very comfy hammock on the balcony.
Playing mega-chess at the marina

Our final Airlie Beach sunset
So yeah, one of our favorite adventures ever. If you ever have the chance to sail on the Solway Lass, don't hesitate. But that's not the only fun we had in the Whitsundays! Next post, I'll share some pics from Hamilton Island (and maybe the Barrier Reef, where I did have an underwater camera).